The Northern Distribution Network and the Modern Silk Road

Planning for Afghanistan’s Future

As the U.S. presence in Afghanistan increases, so too will its demand for nonmilitary supplies. To accommodate this growth and address ongoing concerns with Pakistani supply lines, U.S. planners have opened the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a commercially-based logistical corridor connecting Baltic and Black Sea ports with Afghanistan via Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

Despite the NDN’s early success, military and civilian planners should not become complacent.  The network remains subject to a range of geopolitical dangers and logistical inefficiencies.  The United States could bolster the NDN’s resiliency and improve its effectiveness by:

  • expanding procurement of locally-produced products for use in Afghanistan
  • using the NDN to push for streamlined customs procedures
  • developing the Pakistani port of Gwadar as an additional supply route
  • strengthening the “NDN South” spur, which runs through the Caucasus and Central Asia
  • recognizing that disputes within Central Asia could prove as great a threat to the NDN as disputes between transit countries and Washington
  • striving for maximum transparency of financial arrangements
  • drawing up contingency plans

While the creation of the NDN was motivated by the U.S. military’s immediate logistical needs, its establishment nonetheless offers a unique opportunity for Washington to further broader strategic objectives. With prompt attention, adequate coordination, and the correct set of policies, the U.S. government could leverage the NDN to lay a foundation for the so-called Modern Silk Road. As outlined in the report, this development would help stabilize Afghanistan by providing economic alternatives to insurgency and generating an indigenous revenue stream for the Afghan government.

This report identifies several important steps for promoting the Modern Silk Road - the missing component of the United States’ Afghan policy.  The report also debunks the myth that Afghanistan’s current economic predicament is derived from insecurity and the inadequacy of regional transport infrastructure.  While insecurity and poor infrastructure are indeed problematic, our analysis identifies other obstacles that play a far greater role in limiting the volume of intercontinental and regional commerce.

Achieving the Modern Silk Road is as much a challenge as it is a requirement for long-term success in Afghanistan.  The U.S. government, in close consultation with regional players, must formulate practical policies to help lay the groundwork for the Modern Silk Road and the sustainable Afghan economy it would contribute to.  Specifically, the U.S. government should focus on eight actions:

  1. Identify and embrace the strategic implications of the Modern Silk Road.
  2. Create an immediate strategy for the Modern Silk Road’s development.
  3. Promote the Modern Silk Road concept and U.S. strategy for its implementation.
  4. Identify and empower a lead U.S. government entity.
  5. Stimulate alternative corridors.
  6. Focus resources on the key obstacles to the Modern Silk Road.
  7. Give Afghanistan the tools to harness the Modern Silk Road.
  8. Recognize that the Modern Silk Road will benefit all of Eurasia.

While key transit states enjoy new leverage over Washington, the NDN also serves as a potential vehicle for constructive U.S. engagement. Understanding how to manage these geopolitical risks and opportunities will be critical for the United States and will be the subject of a separate study to be released shortly.

Andrew C. Kuchins

S. Frederick Starr

David A. Gordon

Thomas M. Sanderson